In the frontline of change: Turning round a challenging school

15 December 2015 -


Head teacher Tom Sherrington came into his new school with the task of turning things round after a series of poor results and bad press.

Here he talks to Professional Manager about the change management tools he used to introduce new ways of working at a school Oftsted has since described as ‘outstandingly effective’

Matt Scott

Few schools have experienced change like Highbury Grove School in Islington, north London.

Founded in 1967 by Rhodes Boyson (later a Conservative MP and education minister), in its early years Highbury Grove ran a regime of strict discipline and outstanding results. Then, in the 1990s, it languished, becoming a byword for failure in 2005 when an undercover journalist filmed chaotic classroom scenes.

In recent years, the school has improved dramatically and is now among the UK’s most admired comprehensives, especially for music. Its new head teacher, Tom Sherrington (one of the new breed of ‘super heads’), was appointed in 2014 and swiftly made his mark (and endured the wrath of parents) by handing out 300 detentions a day in his first week.

Sitting inside new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency, Highbury Grove will inevitably be in the political and educational spotlight. Here, Sherrington (who also blogs at reflects on his challenges of change management.

“The first thing you notice when coming into a big school as headmaster is the large number of stakeholders you have to deal with. In the early days, you have to find out what everybody thinks; you have to get a feel for what the agenda is from the people who are already there. That’s the most important part of taking charge, because the school doesn’t belong to you.

“Before I even started in the role I had people lobbying me with their concerns, so I already had a feeling for what other people thought of the school. That was quite encouraging because it told me that people weren’t sitting back and accepting the status quo. That gave me a mandate to go in and make some big changes quite soon after starting.

“One of the biggest changes I introduced was a revamp of the behaviour system – which is a major feature of school life. We closed the school for two half-days to ensure we could have every member of staff in one place to discuss the changes.

“And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. All the catering staff, the admin team and all the teachers came together to pour out their angst about behaviour and how difficult it was at the school.

Introducing change

“The purpose of these two sessions was to seek their views about the problems they had, as well as on some of the proposed solutions, so everyone had an opportunity to have their say – that was important.

“Although I already knew the structure I planned on using, getting buy-in from the staff was important because they’re the ones that have to use it day-to-day in their work.

“When you’ve done something before – and I’ve been a head before – you have a sense of the things that ought to work. The process is then more about pitching ideas at people and making sure they have a chance to critique and get involved in the implementation. You need to invest enough time in people so they feel they have the skills and incentives to make the changes you are requiring of them.

“But it’s not all super-democratic. It depends on the type of change you are introducing. If you need everyone to believe in the new system and act on it, then you need to spend more time investing in getting their views and support. If it’s just a simple change of procedure then you can just announce it without too much prior work.

“Despite this, introducing change can have its challenges – even if you have put in the hard preparatory work. And, while I haven’t had fierce resistance from staff, there is an inertia around changing practices that can hamper a change programme.

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“One of the main problems is that people still use the old system because it’s what they’re familiar with, even though they are not supposed to be using it.

“We introduced a website for setting students homework, but not everyone uses it because it’s not habitual yet. You tee it up and say ‘We are all going to do this’ and six months later you find quite a lot of people have not been doing it.

“In this situation you need to be patient and appreciate that things can take time.

“You need to have a confidence that it will take a year or two years rather than thinking it will all happen overnight. What I’ve learnt is to anticipate inertia and not be surprised by it, and not to blame people for it.

“People are busy, and changing practices is a slow process. I’ve worked in schools where people just got told off all the time and that’s never really helpful.

“You need to have three or four big pushes to reach a default level of behaviour that has changed. If you go for one hit and expect that to do it then you are set for disaster. That is never going to work.

“Some of the hardest people to please are governors who don’t have children, as they can’t see the changes taking effect. What I have done is get them to come into the school and see the changes for themselves. Joining a new school with no track record of success in that particular institution does mean it can be difficult to get support from key people on the board of governors.

“If people expect success to be generated in a certain way and you are suggesting changes to that before you have results, it is difficult. You are just saying, ‘Trust me, this will work’ and some of them don’t trust you.

“That early phase is the most difficult. Success breeds confidence and trust, but at the early stage of a change, you don’t have the success to prove it works.

“You have to have courage in your convictions, and some key supporters who will champion you. Without those supporters early on in my career at Highbury Grove, the job would have been a lot harder to do – if not impossible.”

Photo by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

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